The COVID Train

Words by Gemma Bastiani

Photographs by Megan Brewer

On November fifth, 63 days out from the launch of the sixth AFLW season, news broke that the Western Bulldogs had been forced into isolation due to a positive COVID test returned by a player prior to training.

While we are now old hats at rapid antigen tests (RATs), delays, and isolation periods, it was the first AFLW program shut down because of COVID and sent a reality check through the footy world. 

Given the limited hours players are contracted for during both preseason and the season proper, the three precious training sessions lost due to a week spent in isolation can significantly alter what coaches can cover with their players ahead of round one. 

But the Dogs didn’t let it unsettle them.

“Obviously it was a bit of a shock, hearing the news. Just because like everyone’s double vaxxed, so you just don’t really expect that. But I guess it’s still roaming around,” Isabel Huntington said of that first isolation period.

“Almost a week was a bit of a reset for me, and I think a lot of the girls actually said that as well, because it’s been such a hectic period… So, a silver lining out of it all was that it is a little bit of a mental break and a reset. Obviously horrible having a teammate that had COVID. But you know, they’re going okay as well, which is good.”

Agreeing with the sentiment, Katie Lynch did add that any longer than a week might have left her with a different taste in her mouth. 

“I was strangely okay,” admitted Lynch. “I thought, had it been another week I might have been in trouble, might have been jumping out of my skin a little bit, but I kind of just enjoyed a week to have no pressure to do anything or be anywhere.”

That time wasn’t, however, spent completely detached from one another. Coaches turned their focus to education portions of the training plan, executing over Zoom chats in normal training times so as to maintain structure.

“We had a meeting with everyone and Burkey just sort of said, you know, obviously this isn’t ideal, but now we’ve just got to make the most of the situation,” said Jess Fitzgerald.

“We did a bunch of education online, which we wouldn’t have had the chance to do if we were at training just because we have limited time there and we’d rather spend it on the track… We didn’t take any steps back, if anything, we took a few steps forward, which I thought was pretty cool.”

It didn’t stop at November’s isolation period, either. An intra club match was planned for December 11th to give the players a chance at match conditions with umpires officiating some new rules and VFLW players to help create two full squads to square off. Unfortunately COVID wasn’t going to allow that to happen. Regulation RAT tests before entering the club excluded the VFLW players from taking part, leaving Nathan Burke and his coaching staff with one option: play limited numbers at either end of the ground and push through.

And push through they did, offering a baptism by fire to the players as they got their first taste of match conditions in months.

“We had a little bit of a curveball, as is the case with COVID these days,” sighed Mel Hickey.

“The VFL girls not being able to train kind of buggered the numbers up a little bit. So we went with three v three up each end, so it was an interesting exercise in coaching because I was kind of cheering for the ball to stay within the arcs because that meant the backs at either end were doing a good job.”

Plus being out on the exposed surface of Whitten Oval in the summer heat did throw up another challenge.

“Oh my god, no rotations was death,” breathed Jess Fitzgerald.

But there were exciting moments to take from the game. Bonnie Toogood presented well in attack, while also running through the midfield. Elle Bennetts’ endurance in between the arcs was setting a standard for younger teammates. Ellie Blackburn and Fitzgerald going head to head in the midfield was a hard hitting, entertaining battle. 

They showed that, despite last moment hurdles, Bulldog footy was still at a very high standard.

 

Isolation and Injury

The Dogs were back in isolation over New Years just a week out from the season and, between COVID and injuries, player availability and fitness levels for the all important round one match against rivals Melbourne was becoming an issue.

“We’ve got quite a list in rehab right now, but they’re all little niggles and stuff like that. They’re on the way back to full training, so that’s good. But we’ve got a couple of major ones, you know, Dee [Berry] has got the ACL, but the rehab group is slowly getting smaller,” Amanda Ling noted just before the Christmas break.

Star midfielder Kirsty Lamb trained through a footy injury during the length of the preseason, spending practice matches up forward so as to get some match fitness, while captain Ellie Blackburn had experienced her most limited preseason of her career.

“To be honest she’s had a very interrupted preseason, she’s nowhere near as fit as what she’s going to be but I think she overcame the fitness with just determination,” Burke said of Blackburn.

Crucial key defender Katie Lynch had also battled injury throughout the preseason, stripping away some of the confidence she had gained from an impressive 2021 season.

“I didn’t have a preseason basically. So when I started trying to come back from that and I was getting closer and you know, the physios were saying to me ‘e’ll get you okay for round one or two’, there were so many points where I was like, this is not going to work, I’m still in such pain. I can barely run,” Lynch explained, describing her limited training block as her biggest challenge of AFLW season six. 

“Once I was over that, it got to a mindset of ‘Fuck, I haven’t played a preseason, I have no idea what to expect from myself. Am I going to be shit again? I’m not even going to understand any of the stuff the backline’s been working on.’” 

“My confidence was shot a bit, because I hadn’t proven to myself yet that I was capable of it, because I hadn’t had the chance.”

Fellow defenders Ellyse Gamble and Hannah Scott had also been ruled out for round one, leaving Eleanor Brown as the Dogs’ one fit key defender available to take on the Demons. Not an easy task given the forward line Melbourne boasted.

“Yeah that was a rough day, a rough day at the office,” Brown said of the match, noting her tricky matchup on four-time All Australian Tayla Harris.

“Burkey told me when Kenny [Gamble] got injured. So I knew a while in advance… I’d rather not be playing on a tall player but like, I’ll just play whatever, as long as I’m in the team I don’t really mind.”

But what slid under the radar was Brown’s week spent in isolation immediately prior to round one, after contracting COVID.

“I got [COVID] the week before round one. So I got out on Friday—the day before the game—but I had no symptoms which was so lucky,” Brown said casually.

“We had 24 [players] so we only had the two that didn’t make it,”

— Nathan Burke on his round one player availability

Big challenges for the Dogs didn’t only extend to available personnel. Their season opener was one of the premier games on the Western Bulldogs’ calendar, a match against arch rival Melbourne, where they would play off for the Hampson-Hardeman cup.

 

The Hampson-Hardeman Cup on display during the Dogs’ round one match against Melbourne. Image: Megan Brewer

 

Named after Barb Hampson and Lisa Hardeman—women’s footy pioneers in Victoria who formed the first women’s national championships in 1998—the cup is hotly contested by the two clubs that showed early investment and potential in a national women’s league.

The Dogs and Demons rivalry dates back to the very first women’s exhibition match in 2013. A match, and resulting series, that would ultimately lead to the AFLW competition as it is now known.

Throughout the series Melbourne was on the winning end of the ledger, only handing over the cup in 2016 after the Dogs broke a losing streak of four straight matches against the Demons.

Huntington was strong on the original women’s footy rivalry being brought back to round one as a regular fixture.

“Dogs vs Dees, I think it always should have been [the season opener]… We’re not the men’s comp, why not use the two clubs that have been there since day dot, have a rivalry?”

Defensive coach Mel Hickey has a slightly different perspective on the rivalry. One of Melbourne’s two inaugural marquee signings, Hickey played 13 games in the red and blue before moving down to Geelong for two further seasons.

 

Mel Hickey in her Melbourne playing days. Image: Megan Brewer

 

“It’s funny because obviously having played for Melbourne and knowing the rivalry from the other side. I think that’s so cool and it’s just changed over the years… and obviously having been involved from the exhibition games, I think it’s really special. 

“Those two clubs are really pioneering and I’ve got no doubt we wouldn’t be where we are without those two clubs.”

For Eleanor Brown, being reminded of Hickey’s history at Melbourne is almost a betrayal.

“I’ll bring it up with her and how we can remove that from her history,” she said, only half joking.

Fast forward to 2022 and Melbourne was a highly touted side coming into the season, and for good reason. The Bulldogs ended up being in front row seats for a short kicking masterclass from their opponent. 

“They were a superb team,” Ling said of the Demons. “The way they cut through us was, like with those short kicks like, we just kept chasing their ass all day.”

A positive start to the second quarter suggested the Dogs were in with a fighting chance. Isabel Huntington took an impressive contested mark and neatly slotted a goal to get her side within 11 points just moments before an awkward change of direction saw her fall to the ground. Immediately the stands were filled with groans, knowing that it could only mean one thing. 

ACL. Season over.

“When it happened, I knew I’d done it but I didn’t think it was that bad. Like the mechanism, I didn’t think it would look that bad. And then it wasn’t until I got the visual and slowed it down and saw my knee I was like ‘Okay, jesus there you go. That’s um, yeah, that’s my knee!’” said Huntington of the injury.

 

Isabel Huntington is helped off the ground after injuring her knee in round one. Image: Megan Brewer

 

Three days later she was able to address her third ACL rupture publicly, but in a way only Izzy Huntington knew how.

 

 

“But yeah, it sucks. I think probably the hardest thing was just knowing that you’ve done all the preseason and so much preparation, all those hours in the gym, on the track, every little detail that you put into your preparation and all the sacrifices that you make as well. Particularly in AFLW giving up so much time and everything and then just in one small moment one bad change direction it all comes crashing down.”

Post game, Nathan Burke didn’t only have to face a round one loss, but the prospect of Huntington being unavailable for the remainder of what was already a tricky season. But first and foremost his player’s welfare, and the morale of the team as a whole, was the priority.

“There’s a bunch of players who have just gotten to know Izzy and they love her, and there’s a bunch of players who have been with her right from the start through those sort of issues, so there’s different reasons for the sympathy but obviously they’ll gather around her and whatever comes of it they’ll support her to the hilt,” said Burke.

Captain Ellie Blackburn was frank in what a loss Huntington was for the team’s fortunes the following Monday when cohosting The W Show for womens.afl.

“You almost can’t replace her. She’s the type of player… she’s so unique in the way she goes about it, her ability to jump and fly and take pack marks is really unique and special.”

It was Huntington’s maturity, however, that came to the fore throughout the whole ordeal. 

“I think with everything in the world going on at the moment it helps put it into perspective. This season is absolute chaos anyway, if there’s any season to miss it’s probably this one. 

“Even with the surgery, obviously I’d want to go in and get it done straight away because the waiting period is annoying sometimes, but just hearing about the hospital system at the moment, it’s absolute chaos. People can’t get heart surgery, cancer surgery, all of that, so I’m certainly not at the top of the priority list. I’ll be able to get it when I can get it. Yeah it just helps with perspective, everything that’s going on.” 

“It’s not the end of the world, I’ll go through it and it sucks but I’ll come back.”

That game wasn’t all negative, though. The side’s ability to turn the tides after a tough start certainly stood out, visibly restricting Melbourne’s game style for long periods after the first quarter, highlighted by a signature Ellie Blackburn goal early in the third term.

“Terrible start, we just didn’t play the type of football that we want to play. Good thing was that we were able to change that. I would have been really disappointed if the way that we started was the way that we continued but the fact that we were brave enough to say no that’s not us, let’s change it and play a different way, that pleased me,” Burke said honestly of his side.

And Ling had a similar perspective on the team’s performance as a whole.

“I think we fixed it up after quarter time. Even the second quarter was a little bit better, we started to get the hang of it and then yeah, finished off strong, which was what we liked.”

 

Debuting Amongst the Chaos

For Amanda Ling, that round one fixture was bittersweet. Running out in the red, white and blue for her very first AFLW game was a dream come true. The result, less so.

“Round one was definitely a tough one for me. I went out there with a vision of how I wanted to play and then was quite upset after the game just because I felt like I didn’t fulfil that and I didn’t quite match what I wanted to do out there, so was quite upset about it, beat myself up about it quite a bit,” Ling admitted.

Importantly, it was what she did after that game that symbolised her maturity and character—both key to the club’s recruitment strategy. Speaking to teammates who have been through similar experiences, and seeking out the club’s psychologist to develop strategies for dealing with the mental lows of footy was the first step.

“I talked to some of the girls and kind of wrapped my head around it and was like, ‘Okay that was your first game with elite women out there, cut yourself a little bit of slack here.’”

“I talked to our sport psych as well just at the back of the game, just because yeah, was not the best night. Then a couple of the girls like Bonnie [Toogood] and Lizzy G [Elisabeth Georgostathis] helped me out, talked me through it. They were like ‘You’ve got to calm down a little bit. It’s good to show that you care, but cut yourself a bit slack because it’s your first time running out there.’” 

That pressure to have an immediate impact, combined with an internalised inferiority complex in the context of her teammates led Ling to play a game style that didn’t match the player she was recruited to be. Post game friends would comment that she didn’t seem to be playing the way they have come to know and love her out on the field.

“Out there I wasn’t attacking the ball. I saw the ball there, I had opportunities, but I just saw another teammate going in for it and I would just go and block. I would do the one percenters and whatever but I wouldn’t go get the ball. Whereas I should have gone to hunt the ball.”

Isolation Experts

The hits just kept coming, too, with the club forced back into isolation and away from the footy field for the next two weeks as COVID swept through both the playing list and off field team. Finding a glimmer of humour in it, Burke laughed that even the club’s COVID marshall was knocked down with the virus.

For Ling, that meant more time at home alone reflecting on her less than ideal debut, but for Jess Fitzgerald it meant training alone or in a very small group as one of the few who managed to avoid a dreaded positive test.

“I was lucky enough not to get COVID, I was like one of six to not get it. But people were just dropping like flies and I was just waiting for the day that I would test positive, but it didn’t come thank god. It’s just been crazy.”

Whatsapp groups were created for players on the “COVID train” and tasks were assigned for those well enough to concentrate, but it was less than ideal watching other clubs get their seasons off to strong starts. Clubs played three games before the Dogs could even take to the field for a chance to redeem a round one loss. It wasn’t something worth dwelling on, though. It was out of their control so the preseason mindset of finding positives was engaged.

For Katie Lynch, it was a blessing in disguise. Still on the way back from a knee injury that plagued her preseason, the extra fortnight on the sidelines allowed her to feel more comfortable in her training before taking to the field.

That being said, Lynch felt mildly responsible for the outbreak in the club.

“The week of round one I got COVID and so that was before everyone in the team, and it ripped through the whole team,” Lynch explained.  

“I had it before everyone so I think it was weird because it was being reported as, like, Katie’s injured and won’t be available to play—which was true—but I also had COVID it so that was like just a big cross next to my name.”

The reality of COVID tearing through a squad of elite athletes isn’t simply the games lost while players are forced into isolation, it is the recovery of those players and the ability to return to that elite environment that would become the biggest concern. Not to mention the heat in which the AFLW was being played and small squad numbers compared to the men’s game. There was very little flexibility when it came to player availability.

Club medical staff were very careful with the group and its timeline back to playing elite footy again. While other clubs were able to return after just a week on the sidelines, the Dogs took a conservative approach and ended up out of the game for a fortnight.

“The medical team explained to us that if you go out there playing at 70 percent you’re pretty much throwing the rest of the season in the bin, because you’re never going to reach 100 percent anymore. Because if you play and play and play, you’re going to have chronic fatigue or something. 

“It’s definitely better for the team and better for our health that we took two weeks off. You see some of the girls out there training and you wouldn’t want them to go play a game,” explained Ling when asked about how it was communicated to the playing list.

And this was something publicly noted by players, including Toogood on womens.afl’s W Show.

“What I’ve loved over the past couple of weeks is that the AFL and the club have put our health first and that’s obviously the number one priority and what they’ve done. We’re on the mend, we’re getting girls back in leaps and bounds,” said Toogood.

Burke was frank about the limitations he was coaching within as players slowly made their way out of isolation and back to training. Understanding that player welfare is paramount, but also that it makes preparing to win games of footy very, very hard.

“We trained with 10 players, 12 players for virtually two weeks. The players that did come back and train, they were only allowed to do about 30 percent of the training so it’s hard, but it is what it is,” he said.

“We’re not the only team that’s going to go through it… we’re not the only team but it’s certainly not ideal”

Returning to the Field

Twenty days after their loss to the Demons in round one, the Dogs were staring down the barrel of a trip north to face Greater Western Sydney. 

The Giants had not enjoyed the best start to the season. After a round one win they had lost two games on the trot and were without a handful of key players due to the dreaded Health and Safety Protocols—something the Dogs knew all too well.

It wasn’t a game the Bulldogs will look back on fondly. Down by four goals at halftime and struggling to suck air into still-recovering lungs, they rallied in the second half but simply weren’t able to take the chances they created. Eventually falling by 21 points, the exhaustion across the players’ faces was evident.

No amount of endeavour or determination could mask the physical effects of the virus still punishing the players. Even the seemingly superhuman Ellie Blackburn was limited.

“Ellie Blackburn only had two minutes in the midfield in the second half ‘cause she just ran herself ragged and she had nothing left and it was an amazing effort to do what she did and there were quite a few others in a similar boat, but that’s just a testimony to their ability to guts it out,” Burke said post game.

Blackburn herself spoke to the ongoing impact of the virus on The W Show, describing how it forced changes to the whole team’s dynamic. Structures had to be adjusted to allow certain players longer breaks, or time out of the midfield so as to not push bodies too far. 

“For me in particular, I’ve been rotating really early in each quarter, so I’ll come off in the first couple of minutes of each quarter which is pretty unusual for me so that’s how I’ve been trying to manage it and I think each player has had to get a lot more rotations in, so lucky we don’t have a cap on that.”

In the coming weeks Burke outlined specific players who were being played out of position in order to preserve their strength for the length of a full game. Kirsty Lamb spent more time in attack than typically desired, so too Blackburn. Brooke Lochland missed a further two games as she took longer to build up her training load. The list of considerations wasn’t short.

The Western Bulldogs’ return to play wasn’t simply a case of two weeks off, then business as usual. Their season became a very carefully managed juggling act involving players recovering at various rates and an unpredictable condensed fixture, added to the already limited access to ‘part time’ players and staff contracted for just ten hours plus games per week.

But the option was to take issue with the hand they were dealt and view the season as a write off, or embrace the chaos and roll with the punches, seeing how many scalps could be taken along the way.

“There’s no normality because we’ve got a four day break now,” Burke said to the media after the loss to GWS.

“No one expects us to beat Fremantle, they’re a very, very good side. So we get four days to atone for [the GWS loss], we get to be the underdogs, we get a nothing to lose attitude.”

“Teams are dangerous with that sort of thing.”

This is part TWO of a three-part series on the Western Bulldogs’ sixth AFLW season. With thanks to Melissa Hickey, Jess Fitzgerald, Katie Lynch, Amanda Ling, Isabel Huntington, Eleanor Brown and the Western Bulldogs. Additional words by Felicity Smith. PART ONE IS AVAILABLE TO READ NOW. Part tHREE will be available in the next edition of the Siren newsletter.